Much like her spiritual predecessor Keira Knightley, at this point it’s difficult not to picture Lily James in a corset. From Downton Abbey, Disney’s Cinderella, Tolstoy’s Natasha Rostova and even Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (by way of Seth Grahame-Smith), James has spent a good five or so years making a name for herself as the “bright-eyed, spirited Englishwoman from another era”, as Harper’s Bazaar put it earlier this year. With a CV dominated largely by ballgowns and victory rolls, James has come to be known as one of the industry’s quintessential English roses. But as the boisterous, dungarees-clad Donna in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again,James is set to wow audiences with a full-blown musical – and maybe buck her own trend in the process.
Fans of ITV’s glossy Downton Abbey may remember Lily James as the Crawleys’ wayward cousin, Lady Rose MacClare. But it was 2015’s Cinderella that really thrust James into the spotlight. Fascinatingly, James actually auditioned for a stepsister role to begin with, but was asked to read for Ella – and the rest is history. An early entry in Disney’s recent slate of live-action remakes, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella was destined to be a huge success. An earnestly old-fashioned fairytale, the film eschews the temptation to wink knowingly or self-deprecatingly at any point. It’s a welcome little slice of sincerity in an increasingly cynical world, where every sincere cinematic moment has to be punctuated with a mood-breaking joke.
Breathing three-dimensional life into Disney’s beloved but thinly-plotted 1950 animation, James presents a sweetly resilient heroine in Ella. The film’s recurrent motto, “have courage and be kind” – written off by some as a meaningless platitude – remains a powerful statement to hold onto in troubled times. Guided by this mantra, James’ Ella retains a quiet fortitude throughout her abusive treatment, proving there’s more than one way to be strong and making it abundantly clear that she’s not submissive – she’s a survivor. Beyond the ballrooms and Swarovski crystals lies a story of resilience and hope. Ella doesn’t allow abuse, hardship, or grief to turn her hard. Paired with Richard Madden’s kindhearted Prince (the very antithesis to toxic masculinity: unafraid to cry, to express love for his father, or to listen to a woman’s advice), it’s a stony heart indeed that could resist this film’s message.
After the hit that Cinderella proved to be, more costumed roles followed – with varying degrees of success. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a messy, male-gazey blood-and-bonnets affair, feels essentially like a glorified SNL sketch that overstays its welcome by about an hour and 40 minutes. On paper James makes the perfect Elizabeth Bennet, but in a film more interested in lingering chest and thigh shots the character is barely recognisable, and this critical failure (deservedly) failed to recoup its budget.
On the other hand War and Peace, the BBC’s lavish £10 million adaptation of Tolstoy’s notoriously weighty tome, was a tremendous success. James’ turn as naive young Natasha Rostova drew particular attention, and once again the sumptuous sets and costumes proved a winning formula. A turn on the West End stage in a Kenneth Branagh-directed Romeo and Juliet, as well as a role in romantic World War II drama The Exception, rounded off 2016 as a year in which not one of James’ projects took place in the modern day. It seemed a precedent was being set, making James the go-to actress for period roles.
But then again, is that something that should be criticised? In January 2018, Keira Knightley shed some light on why period dramas, rather than modern day fare, have seemed to make up so much of her own work. “I always find something distasteful in the way women are portrayed,” she told Variety, speaking of modern scripts, “whereas I’ve always found very inspiring characters offered to me in historical pieces. There’s been some improvement. I’m suddenly being sent scripts with present-day women who aren’t raped in the first five pages and aren’t simply there to be the loving girlfriend or wife.”
It’s a sentiment James herself obviously shares. When the film adaptation for the bestselling 2008 novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society presented itself back in 2016, James was already tiring of the niche she had created for herself. She turned down the role – right in the middle of shooting for The Exception, it didn’t seem prudent to accept yet another historically-set film. Like most actors, she feared the dreaded spectre of typecasting. But the chance to work with Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) proved irresistible, and James’ desire to work with such a storied director eventually overcame her reluctance to step back in time again. Fate offered her a second chance to accept the job, and in subsequent interviews she cites it as a learning experience – to not to just shake things up for appearance’s sake.
The character, too, provided some ample temptation. James’ character here is Juliet Ashton, an intrepid author who travels to post-war Guernsey to investigate and write about the island’s still-recent Nazi occupation. She’s a self-assured, modern woman who’s frequently shown throwing caution to the wind to go after what she wants – a tempting offer for any actress. Is it any wonder, then, that James seems to gravitate towards the past?
It’s hard not to think of Knightley’s comments when examining the few times James has ventured into present-day characters. The roles have arguably been pretty lacklustre. Take Debora, the waitress in Edgar Wright’s stylish 2017 crime flick Baby Driver. James brings a pleasant, breezy charm to the waitress who catches getaway driver Baby’s eye, and it’s an undeniably sweet role. But when it comes down to it, Debora largely exists as a love interest to encourage Baby to leave his life of crime behind, rather than a fully-realised character in her own right. For all the criticism heaped on Disney princesses, Cinderella’s Ella has significantly more agency and self-determination than poor Debora, who seems to exist solely as a motivational tool/prize/victim when the plot requires it. True, she’s not the main character, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect the same levels of screentime or complexity – but surely she deserves some kind of characterisation beyond “likes music and Ansel Elgort”?
So what next? Well, for now, the future looks to be set firmly in the present for James with a voiceover role in Boots Riley’s lauded Sorry to Bother You (as the White Voice of Tessa Thompson’s Detroit) and Little Woods, a kind of modern female-led Western by Nia DaCosta. Here, James plays another Deb, but this time she’s a single mother living in a trailer in North Dakota, forced to work outside the law with her sister Ollie (Tessa Thompson once again) to survive. It’s a million miles away from the glossy, bejewelled world of period dramas, but also of the drab love-interesty roles that offer no creative fulfillment. It’s also that rarest of rarities, a chance to work on a project written and directed by a woman.
However, James isn’t ready to say goodbye to period dramas just yet. 2019 will also see a return the West End, this time as the ambitious ingenue Eve Harrington in a stage adaptation of All About Eve, reuniting with her War and Peace co-star Gillian Anderson. Based on the 1950 film of the same name, it’s a classic Hollywood tale of ambition, ageing, and the fickleness of fame. It’ll be fascinating to see Lily James take on an unequivocally scheming character, finally getting a chance to play that wicked stepsister role she auditioned for way back when; her talent for playing naive, non-threatening idealists is ready for a good shakeup. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.